Anthony Hope, a young sailor, rescues a shipwrecked man who introduces himself as Sweeney Todd, a deported criminal returning to London after serving his prison term. After Sweeney chases away an old beggar woman, he tells Anthony the story of a barber who was unjustly arrested and taken from his wife by Judge Turpin and his beadle. Mrs. Lovett, the owner of a pie shop, invites Sweeney in and tells him a similiar story she knows about a wife with a young daughter whose husband was sent away by a judge and his beadle. The judge subsequently ravished the wife, who went insane and took poison. The woman's daughter, Johanna, was then raised by the judge. Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, united by rage and hatred, gleefully plot revenge against Judge Turpin, his beadle, and everyone else in London.
Sweeney has taken up residence in the apartment above Mrs. Lovett's pie shop. Downtown, he meets Pirelli, a rival barber, and his assistant Tobias Ragg. Through a contest which he wins, Sweeney advertises the opening of his new barbershop.
Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney devise an ingenious way to dispose of Pirelli's corpse-they add it to the filling of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. Sweeney acquires a chair that will eject his victims down a chute leading to the pie shop. There, Mrs. Lovett, with an unwitting Tobias as her assistant, bakes meat pies that become all the rage in London. The old beggar woman lurks about, looking for a handout.
The jealous Judge Turpin has Johanna sent away to an insane asylum. Anthony plans to rescue her, disguised as a wigmaker looking for Johanna's particular haircolor. Sweeney baits Judge Turpin by writing a note informing him that he will foil Anthony's plan by keeping him at the barbershop, where the judge may intercept him. To check into complaints about the smell of burning hair, the Beadle pays a visit to Mrs. Lovett and is murdered by Sweeney. Anthony succeeds in freeing not only Johanna, but every inmate in the asylum. Tobias, finding human hair and fingernails in the meat pies and the chute in action, goes mad. The old beggar woman enters the pie shop. Sweeney, desperate not to miss yet another opportunity to kill Judge Turpin, hastily kills the beggar woman to get her out of the way. Sweeney lures Turpin into the barber chair and cuts his throat. As Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett begin disposing of all of the bodies by throwing them in the oven, Sweeney recognizes the dead beggar woman as his long-lost wife. Realizing that Mrs. Lovett has known this secret all along, Sweeney throws her into the oven. The crazed Tobias, devoted to Mrs. Lovett, kills Sweeney and grinds him up before the horrified eyes of Johanna and Anthony.
Stephen Sondheim (1930 - )
Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics and scores for ASSASSINS, INTO THE WOODS, PASSION, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, SWEENEY TODD, PACIFIC OVERTURES, THE FROGS, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, FOLLIES, COMPANY, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, as well as the lyrics for DO I HEAR A WALTZ GYPSY, and WEST SIDE STORY, and additional lyrics for CANDIDE. SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, MARRY ME A LITTLE, YOU'RE GONNA LOVE TOMORROW, and PUTTING IT TOGETHER are anthologies of his work as a composer and lyricist. His film credits include "Stavisky," "The Last of Sheila," "Reds," and "Dick Tracy"; television credits include "Topper" and "Evening Primrose." Mr. Sondheim has won five Tony awards for his scores of COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEENEY TODD, and INTO THE WOODS.
In 1983 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1990 he was appointed the first Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University; in 1993 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1996, he received the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Blood Will Tell
by Terry Teachout
The jury is still out on whether or not Sweeney Todd is an opera. But few deny that it's a masterpiece.
An organ fills the theatre with sober, Bach-like sounds - only there's something strangely askew about the harmonies, something wayward and slippery. The ugly shriek of a factory whistle cleaves the air, and before its echo has quite died away, a nervous murmur wafts out of the orchestra pit. Then, one by one, the members of the chorus emerge from the darkness, each singing a single ominous sentence:
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
It is one of the most startling preludes in all of opera - except that Sweeney Todd isn't an opera. Or is it? Or does it even matter?
Regardless of whether or not it matters, the question has been coming up regularly ever since the night in 1973 when Stephen Sondheim first saw Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Christopher Bond's play about a demented barber who slits his clients' throats, then uses their flesh as filling for the tastiest meat pies in London. By his own account, Sondheim's immediate reaction was to wonder whether the play might serve as "the basis of a good operatic piece." The director John Dexter, who had long been encouraging Sondheim to write "a through-composed piece", and who knew his way around an opera stage, replied unhesitatingly that it would be "perfect."
Six years later, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, billed as "a musical thriller," opened at Broadway's Uris Theater, where it ran for 558 performances, 434 more than the original production of Porgy and Bess. The question of what Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler had written thus seemed to have been answered more or less straightforwardly: Sweeney Todd was a musical, and a hit at that.
But just as Porgy and Bess defied such casual categorization, so did Sweeney Todd refuse to fit into any known theatrical pigeonhole. If it was a musical, then it was one that broke nearly all the rules of the game. Yes, it was funny, but in a manner so cinder-black as to recall Jonathan Swift at his most ferocious, with a corrosive pinch of Bertolt Brecht thrown in for good measure. Nor did Sondheim and Wheeler spare their audiences anything in the way of shock: Sweeney Todd ends with a stageful of dead bodies and dazed survivors. The score, as Sondheim had promised Dexter, was "through-composed," with a minimum of spoken dialogue and a maximum of richly expansive music greater in force and intensity than anything that had ever before been heard on a Broadway stage. No previous musical, not even Porgy or West Side Story, had pushed so hard against the outer limits of the genre.
Yet for all its self-evident sophistication, the sources of Sweeney Todd were as popular as a bag of popcorn. Bond's original play was a modernized version of a nineteenth-century melodrama that had once played in theaters all over England. Sondheim had gone to see it because it was the closest thing he could find to the eyeball-gouging spectacles that had once been presented by Paris' Théâtre du Grand Guignol, the long-popular company that specialized in one-act horror plays written for the sole purpose of scaring tourists. (The prop masters of the Grand Guignol had ten different recipes for stage blood.) And once he started writing the score to Sweeney Todd, Sondheim found himself drawn to the music of Bernard Herrmann, the film composer whose scores for such thrillers as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and John Brahm's Hangover Square are at once lushly romantic and deeply unsettling. "It's an open secret," Sondheim has written, "that the music for Sweeney is in homage to Herrmann's harmonic language."
All this notwithstanding, Sweeney Todd is deeply rooted in a style of music drama more characteristic of the opera house than of Broadway or Hollywood, and for all its wonderfully (one is tempted to say "deliciously") comic moments, it has next to nothing to do with the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein tradition in which Sondheim was raised. Just as its tightly knit ensembles and explicitly Debussian harmonies speak of a wider musical awareness, so do its theatrical methods imply a seriousness of purpose alien to the musical-comedy idiom of Sondheim's youth.
It is not merely the grisly subject matter that sets it apart, though that alone would have been sufficient to put Sweeney Todd far outside the ambit of conventional musical comedy. Still, major characters had died violent deaths in other musicals. What was unique to Sweeney Todd was the savage irony with which Sondheim piled up his bloody corpses. The first-act finale, "A Little Priest," is a rollicking waltz whose lyrics pay sardonic homage to the social utility of cannibalism: "The history of the world, my sweet,/Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat." The show's most tender ballad, "Not While I'm Around," is sung by Toby, an unsuspecting street urchin, to Mrs. Lovett, an amoral monster who at that very moment is scheming to have the boy killed, while Sweeney finds his own voice in "Epiphany," a mad scene in which he dedicates himself to the sacred cause of mass murder:
I will have vengeance,
Nor is the blackness of Sondheim's "comedy" merely cynical. Sweeney is a genuinely tragic figure, a man driven mad by his longing for revenge, not just on those individuals who have wronged him but on an entire society poisoned by hypocrisy: "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney!/Hold it to the skies!/Freely flows the blood of those/Who moralize!" Yet as he looks into the abyss and laughs, he fails to see that the dark and vengeful god whom he serves must in time lead him to kill not only the wicked, but the innocent - and, in the end, even those whom he loves most. Such is the terrible logic of his conviction that "we all deserve to die," and his fateful decision to act on it.
We are, in short, in the imaginative world of opera, of Rigoletto and Otello and Don Giovanni, and a few of those who saw Sweeney Todd in 1979 knew as much. On opening night, the veteran theater critic Harold Clurman spotted Schuyler Chapin, then the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, in the lobby of the Uris Theater. Chapin later told Meryle Secrest, Sondheim's biographer:
He came charging across the lobby at me and said, "Why didn't you put this on at the Met?" And I replied, "I would have put it on like a shot, if I'd had the opportunity." And I would have. There would have been screams and yells and I wouldn't have given a damn. Because it is an opera. A modern American opera.
Needless to say, Sweeney Todd continues to be produced as a musical, most recently (and impressively) as part of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration, but I am increasingly inclined to think that it makes its strongest effect when sung and played by classically trained artists capable of rising to its near-operatic musical challenges. "For my part," I wrote in the New York Daily News after the New York Philharmonic's concert performance, "I have no doubt that Sweeney Todd is one of the half-dozen best operas composed by an American."
Even in 2000, those were controversial words, but today I would go even farther. Surely Sweeney Todd is the great American opera, greater than The Mother of Us All or The Tender Land or - yes - Porgy and Bess, and I can think of nothing more fitting than that Stephen Sondheim's blood-soaked masterpiece should now be returning to the repertoire of the very first opera company to have recognized its true stature.
Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary and the author of The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (HarperCollins). A Terry Teachout Reader, a collection of his essays on art and culture, will be published in the spring of 2004 by Yale University Press.
A Bloody Good Show
Program notes by Peter Russell, President and General Director, Opera Colorado
From the time of its critically acclaimed and commercially successful premiere on Broadway in 1979, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd has been viewed as a masterful musical and theatrical work, equal parts American music theatre, English music hall entertainment, Victorian Grand Guignol ("blood and guts") melodrama, Brecht/Weill-influenced alienation satire and morality play, and opera. The first Broadway production, which ran for 557 performances, garnered eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Book, and Score), two Grammy Awards (including Best Original Cast Album), eight New York Drama Critics Circle Awards (including Best Score, Lyrics, and Book), and the Outer Critics Circle Award.
Sondheim's indoctrination into the world of the American musical theatre began early, when, following the divorce of his parents, he moved with his mother to rural Pennsylvania, where his neighbors included the eminent lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and his family. Hammerstein, collaborator with Richard Rodgers on some of the most beloved American musicals (Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The Sound of Music), became a second father and mentor to young Sondheim Although he penned his first original musicals (scores and lyrics) while still an undergraduate at Williams College, Sondheim's first big breaks on Broadway in the 1950's came strictly as a lyricist, working with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story and Jule Styne on Gypsy. It was in 1962 that Sondheim enjoyed his first Broadway success both as composer and librettist, with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Beginning with Company in 1970 (generally regarded as a seminal work in establishing the originality of Sondheim's style as both composer and lyricist), a steady stream of successes has ensued, continuing with Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), and Passion (1994).
Sondheim swiftly found his own voice and character in writing for the musical theater, evolving a style that often relies on a driving, insistent rhythmic underpinning and a rapid-fire accentuation in the vocal lines of his ingeniously creative lyrics. Although he has proven repeatedly that he is capable of writing a hauntingly memorable, deceptively simple melody when the theatrical situation requires it (Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music, for example), these moments are invariably balanced by vehicles for highly-charged, often ironic, always verbally brilliant patter.
But just as Giacomo Puccini, in composing his own operas, maintained an identifiable style while dabbling for theatrical and musical effect in different genres (i.e., orientalism in Madama Butterfly), Sondheim has broadened and enhanced his own unique signature with carefully selected effects for coloration. While Viennese operetta (A Little Night Music), orientalism (Pacific Ovetures), and old-fashioned Broadway and vaudeville lyricism (Follies) have tinted Sondheim's writing, his style remains in all instances immediately recognizable.
The source material for Sweeney Todd is in and of itself an unusual hybrid. There remains active debate as to whether there really was a Sweeney Todd, but his name and reputation as a "demon barber" who murdered several of his customers in the mid-eighteenth century firmly entered the collective English imagination as an Urban Legend. What is known is that his saga was first introduced to British readers in 1846 in The People's Periodical and Family Library, one of the so-called penny dreadfuls read by an increasingly large audience in 19-century England. The Sweeney Todd serial was titled The String of Pearls (after the jewels that motivate Sweeney to kill his first victim), and its story fascinated readers through 18 issues and 37 chapters.
In March 1847, the story was dramatized on the stage of London's Britannia Theatre by Thomas Peckett Prest and George Dibdin Pitt. The String of Pearls or The Fiend of Fleet Street was the Britannia's biggest smash. This first stage version was full of sensational effects, including a disappearing barber chair.
The Prest-Pitt version was the first of many dramatic retellings as Sweeney Todd swiftly took his place alongside Jack the Ripper, Dick Whittington, and other larger-than-life figures of London. He shocked and titillated generations of British audiences.
Christopher Bond's 1973 play Sweeney Todd, seen by Sondheim during a trip to London that year to supervise the British premiere of Gypsy, introduced new elements into the story: revenge and social commentary. The barber is presented as a victim of society, initially a sympathetic figure driven to crime and insanity when his wife and daughter are taken from him by a lecherous judge, and Sweeney Todd himself is unjustly imprisoned. The action was also updated to the time of Dickens' London of the Industrial Age, while retaining some of the feel and character of William Hogarth's bawdy, disturbing engravings from the 18th century.
It comes as no surprise, given that many critics noted from the beginning that Sweeney Todd was the most operatic of Sondheim's works, that the piece first entered the opera house in 1984, only five years after its Broadway opening, in a production by the enterprising Houston Grand Opera. This production was adapted later that same year for performances by the New York City Opera under the stewardship of general director Beverly Sills. Additional opera companies that have leapt onto the Sweeney bandwagon in the intervening years include London's English National Opera, Sydney's Opera Australia, and Toronto's Canadian Opera Company. Shortly before its presentation this season by Opera Colorado, Sweeney made his debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
So is Sweeney Todd a musical? Is it, like Kurt Weill's Street Scene and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, an American opera that happens to have originated on Broadway? Or is it a hybrid? American composer William Bolcom expressed the sentiment of all open-minded lovers of both opera and musicals when he recently stated that, "It doesn't matter in the end what a work calls itself, just as long as it's good music theater." Amen.
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